Joseph Plumb Martin is well known as the chronicler of the Revolutionary War from the foot soldier’s perspective. His diaries are a rich source of eye-witness information about what it was like to be in the trenches, literally.
“Plumb” started his military career with a trial run. Uncertain that he wanted to become a soldier, Plumb signed up at 15 in the Connecticut militia in June, 1776. He fought in the Battle of Brooklyn and the Battle of White Plains, among other actions. But, when winter came, he went home instead of reenlisting.
Whether homelife was unexciting or for some other reason, Plumb had had enough of farm life and enlisted in the Continental Army the next spring. He soon showed an ability and affinity for building fortifications. He was later assigned to the Corps of Sappers and Miners and commanded a platoon that built fortifications for the Siege of Yorktown and the end of the War.
Here is a story from Plumb’s diary when he was assigned to Fort Mifflin on Mud Island in the Delaware River:
After the British took Philadelphia, Plumb was stationed at Fort Mifflin on Mud Island – an outpost on little more than a sand bar in Delaware Bay. The mission of the regiment positioned there was to interfere with British warships as much as possible.
The fortifications were as crude as could be imagined. The troops piled logs and sealed the gaps with mud and debris. The Fort had cannons and openings were left in the logs through which to shoot. Behind the log fortifications were crude barracks and the rest was an open area called the parade ground.
The British had a fortification on the mainland at Hospital Point overlooking Fort Mifflin. It was far enough away that their cannons could not reach Mifflin with direct fire, but they could lob cannon balls and grape shot into it. Their most effective cannon was a thirty-two pounder which could reach the parade ground in a high arc.
Plumb’s regiment had a thirty-two pounder, too. But, there was just one problem – they had no cannon balls for it. So, here’s where more American ingenuity came in.
The Continental artillery officers offered a gill of rum (four ounces) for each thirty-two pound cannon ball that the troops retrieved. Plumb wrote that as many as fifty men stood impatiently on the parade ground, waiting for an incoming shot. When one landed, it would often be picked up even before it stopped rolling.
The lucky retriever would deliver the cannon ball to Mifflin’s thirty-two pounder before downing the reward and returning to the parade to wait for another. The Continental artillerymen would then shoot the retrieved ball back at Hospital Point, or, if British ships were threatening, would save it to shoot at them.
It wasn’t long before Plumb’s regiment could no longer defend Fort Mifflin. His regiment left, except for 75 or so who stayed behind to destroy the place. Plumb was one of them. After setting fire to it, he and his detachment escaped by boat to fight another day.